Gov. Pat McCrory nailed it when he said his “primary duty as governor is to keep the citizens of North Carolina safe.”
That’s why he had to join dozens of Republican governors and Democratic officials around the country in calling on President Obama to “take a deep breath” and rethink plans to accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees next year – five times the number we have admitted since 2011.
In this age of terror, when a handful of people with ordinary weapons can perpetrate unspeakable violence, fear is a rational and appropriate response to this wave of refugees.
When leaders of the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Terrorism Center among others warn our vetting process is less ironclad than Swiss cheese, McCrory’s caution is not only sensible but necessary – it is also far more honest than the what, me worry claims of activists who pretend they understand the system better than those running it.
When a new Pew study reports that 81 percent of Americans do not trust the government “always or most of the time,” it is not surprising that the public overwhelmingly agrees with McCrory’s stance.
Still, words matter, and McCrory should reframe his message to reflect compassion as well as caution. As he raises concern about our safety, he must also emphasize that we are a generous yet imperfect nation of immigrants that has welcomed more than 3 million refugees since the 1970s. He should note that those now arguing that America is a racist and xenophobic nation defined by shameful mistakes during World War II – especially FDR’s decisions to turn away Jewish refugees and inter Japanese-Americans – are cherry-picking our history to cast us in false, dark light.
Accepting desperate refugees from Syria (and Iraq) would not be a rare act of idealism but business as usual.
As a leader whose job requires him to demonstrate a wide view of complex issues, McCrory must make it clear that he understands these refugees are not just seeking a better life. They are fleeing hellholes where chemical weapons, beheadings and mass murder are common. Their lives are defined by our deepest fears. We cannot force them to return there.
He should acknowledge that only three of the 784,000 refugees admitted to the U.S. since Sept 11, 2001, have been convicted of terrorism related charges – while adding that the two Boston Marathon bombers perpetrated horrific violence.
And he must repudiate state Rep. Carol Ford’s demand that the few dozen Syrian refugees in North Carolina be deported.
McCrory should also make a subtle but important distinction: The problem is not Syrian (or Iraqi) refugees per se, but the possibility that ISIS or some other terrorist group might plant operatives among them.
In fairness, McCrory might counter that this is exactly what he is saying. But that is not how it is coming across. In our highly charged political environment, where emotion trumps logic and simple morality is more powerful than more complex facts, he must work harder to find language that reflects the intricate countervailing forces at work here.
He must be as clear about the pull of compassion as he has been about the push for security.
Finding the right words and striking the right tone are not semantic games. They are essential if we ever hope to escape the prison of our current politics – where each side demonizes the other, intent on total victory – and come together to make hard choices.
Doing the right thing is hard when each side dismisses the other; when they are content to simply label their opponents as un-American rather than do the hard work of understanding differing perspectives.
This is the road that veers from democracy to demagoguery.
Moving forward, we must have an open and honest discussion that seeks to resolve the tension between the dangerous threat posed by the wars ravaging the Islamic world and our desire to help Muslims caught in the crossfire.
To this end, we may have to consider taking unwelcome actions – including tracking certain refugees once they are here to ensure that they are not radical agents or that they become radicalized down the road, like the Boston Marathon bombers.
In a dangerous world, sometimes we must compromise our values to honor and preserve them.
Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.